South African politicians who have claimed that the country will be a frontrunner in the Fourth Industrial Revolution have overlooked one key detail – South Africa’s severe lack of engineers.
Earlier this year, in the annual ANC statement, President Cyril Rampahosa said one of the ruling party’s top priorities for 2023 was advancing new technologies as a catalyst for economic development.
Ramaphosa said the Fourth Industrial Revolution would be an enabler of economic growth and job creation.
“Rapid technological change, including the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is changing economies and societies,” he said.
“New digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning can provide a platform for economic growth and development that can expand job creation and self-employment, improve production processes and enhance delivery of public services such as health care, education and community safety.”
“The ANC should join progressive forces across the globe who are working to ensure the digital revolution is not appropriated by elites to reproduce and sustain social inequality – no one must be left behind.”
Al Jama-ah and Johannesburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda have also – incorrectly – claimed that South Africa missed the First, Second, and Third Industrial Revolutions and want the country to lead the Fourth and Fifth.
Al Jama-ah released a press statement on 23 June, saying the party and Gwamanda aim to unlock the next industrial revolution in South Africa.
Al Jama-ah said, “The Party and the City of Johannesburg will not sit back and wait for the rest of the world to reap the awards [sic]” of the next industrial revolution.
It added that “Africa, South Africa, the City of Johannesburg, the Western Cape, and the other provinces are set to see the fastest growth in artificial intelligence”.
The party’s leader, Ganief Hendricks, said the Western Cape, the City of Johannesburg, and the rest of South Africa had missed the first, second, and third industrial revolutions.
“However, Al Jama-ah and the Executive Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda are determined that the African continent will not miss the Fourth and the Fifth Industrial Revolutions,” it said.
Al Jama-ah went on to say that “Africans have a gold mine on their fingertips with a rapidly growing population of 1.4 billion people of which 70% are under the age of 30”.
“This, combined with youth growth in artificial intelligence investments, creates a potent recipe for Africa,” said Hendricks.
However, to achieve these lofty goals of leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution – characterised by intelligent machines, enabling human-machine interaction to achieve ever higher productivity – South Africa needs the correct skills and proficiencies, which the country severely lacks.
In particular, compared to other countries around the world, especially developed nations, South Africa has a significant engineer shortage.
According to the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), the country has one engineer for every 3,100 people, compared to Germany, which has one engineer for every 200 people.
In countries like Japan, the UK and the USA, this ratio stands at about 1:310.
“Therefore, South Africa needs to produce ten times more engineers to compete favourably with developed economies,” according to the ECSA.
Skills crisis in South African municipalities
The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) president Steven Kaplan, also recently spoke about the skill destruction in South African cities and towns.
He said the most important thing to improve local service delivery and infrastructure is ensuring municipalities have the right people and skills.
Local government has lost many qualified and experienced professionals over the last fifteen years.
Research by former SAICE president Dr Allyson Lawless showed that junior technicians had replaced senior engineers working in local government.
Her research showed that there had been a migration of skills, especially professional engineers, towards the private sector and global markets.
There has been a displacement of older, experienced engineers in municipalities between the ages of 45 and 60.
“In 2005, there was a balance between the senior engineers, technologists, and technicians at local government,” Kaplan said.
The situation changed dramatically over the last decade, with virtually no senior engineers left at municipalities.
The senior engineers were replaced by an abundance of new graduate technicians and technologists with no experience. Very few new engineers were employed.
“It means the young incoming graduates don’t have anyone in the workplace to provide structured mentorship programmes,” Kaplan said.
These programmes are essential for skills development and service delivery and guide new graduates to become productive professionals.
He said many municipalities don’t have a single registered professional engineer to guide the young graduates.
The charts below show how civil engineering practitioners’ age and qualifications in local government have changed over the last fifteen years.